There is a list that was forwarded to me last evening, a kind of summary response for the frantic question we circulated – Why Read?
The list says,
- It improves the intellect
- For inspiration
- Build language skills
- Enhances ideas
- Mental alertness
- Means of a lifelong education process
- For personal well-being
- To pass exams
The lists starts to jazz up a little
- Read because it is a cheap thrill, cheap as in affordable
- A conversation bridge when there is an awkward silence
- Cram quotations and authors to impress guests and visitors with
- It increases sex appeal – It is cool for chiles to see you holding a kabook like War and Peace and quoting some Shakespeare like the quality of mercy is not strained …
- Accelerates economic development of a country. We just don’t know how. Or maybe it is because those entrusted with economic development should at least be able to read the reports they write. Which is not always the case.
End of list.
Why should a nation of people quite often exhausted by the mundane challenges of overcoming daily living, of making sense of the confusion of things, and deciding from pallettes of opportunities bother? Why read beyond the exam syllabus when there are deals to be made, children to be born, songs to be sang and property to buy?
And of course, there is the matter of that related question, which the Ministry of Education eternally grapples with, What do you read?
There will be no sublime answers coming out of this brief intervention, nothing that will cause you to race to the nearest bookshop or library and tear it apart carting books and notes away.
First, it is a culture thing. My entire family are book lovers. I had no choice but to learn to read by four. It was the way I could communicate with my parents. Ask for food by citing the insights of Dr Spock, for example. Weekend visitors to our home quickly learned not to panic and call the police after they had banged the gate, shoved in the bell and scaled the walls and still heard nothing but the sound of silence, interspersed with the shifting-shuffling of rustling leaf like sounds.
By deduction, experience and time, visitors much, much later understood that:
- All this time the whole Owuor family were in residence
- and were reading assorted books
- whose characters and ideas would enter into family life just as if they were new family members.
- and the family were therefore ignoring the visitors.
As I said it was a culture thing. And culture things have a habit of being regarded as eccentric.
Listen, distinguished readers, this you do understand: Enclosed in between words, and not always perfect words, are entire universes of thought, of characters that live near or far whose dreams about life and meaning can be met, encountered, interrogated, sought, can signal a direction, issue a warning, suggest even another way of worshiping God. Armchair travelers is a laughed at cliché. Yet it is a nod at the power of writing to enable a human being to transcend the place he or she inhabits and roam around other territories safely, and even return changed, shaken or even more sure of who he or she is.
Of what use is reading to the practical daily issues? What is the value of the written or expressed word to the reality of the daily grind?
There is a simple truth that we may or may not be fully conscious of: That the solution to our human problems resides in our human imagination; that capacity to let go of restraints and constraints and roam into the realm of possibilities.
Reading as subversion we mostly know about: Remember when publications used to be banned here?
When does reading become an act of patriotism? And I am not referring to the reading of this or that manifesto. I am pointing towards a passion for the country in which one finds oneself and realises what ones essential duty is in the service of this love.
What does all reading feed? The imagination.
Fact: Those who are unable to imagine for themselves are imagined for by others.
We may shriek against colonialism. We may wail against Social development tyranny, we may mock SAPS and decry Afro-pessimism. But that is all we shall do, rail and roil if there is not a single one here or wherever who can and will imagine a transcending paradigm. There is a problem when a nation’s narrative is confined to the ground around which a problem is perceived: Let me break this down, use familiar illustrations.
By the year 2000, all households in Kenya shall have access to potable water.
In five years, says another president, we shall put a man on the moon.
Guess which vision was achieved on time?
Imagination is also about cohesive narrative, the choice of story for a person, a society and nation. Reading is an encounter with such narratives, as you well know. But you also realize that there are thousands of plans and policies defined in foreign countries for us by those who imagine what we can be, who because they have heard an actual silence—no rifling of pages—have assumed that as a people we are all far too preoccupied to imagine anything more that hewing wood and drawing water.
Remember Sarkozy’s recent comment about the African peasant whose life rotates around sameness and an exhausted incapacity means that the peasant can do nothing more than engage with the basics of life? Yes, it is true poor Sarkozy is quite mad. But he articulates what perception lies beneath the plans and schemes hatched in foreign headquarters and corporate centres for the so-called benefit of Africa . It is this perception for example that has afflicted our noble continent with the even madder but highly imaginative Bono and Geldof who trot from nation to nation announcing how they are saving Africa.
The tragedy is that they are believed. But it also proves the dangers of a good story sold to those who refuse to read. I am referring to ignorant Europeans and North Americans who buy into and pay for the life of Bono and Geldof who are saving Africa .
Let’s change tact a little, stir things up:
I am Kenyan, and therefore have a political opinion about everything, even reading. Because I read, this is what I have done with my voter’s card. It is cello-taped to my wall, sealed in. It is unlikely to move even on the day of the national elections.
For all its faults and methods, and this is not an apology, merely a provocation, consider the fact that it took the arrival of strangers, and their plans devised in Britain and a bunch of mad but believing foreign men to transform this landscape with its intense diversities into a single nation state. It took a sickly engineer to plan for and ensure that a railway that would link the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria would be laid out across a landscape even when al the world was proclaiming it impossible.
Name a single person you know of today who has a grand-scale imagination for this country? Name one who if he repeats the story of Kenya that is in his or her heart will make you weep, sing and dance with inspired energy? What does it take? Certainly more than reading. Yet the absence of a sense of the power of the imagination embedded inside words is obvious to all in this country.
Is it only me feeling this, or are we singularly wounded by boring visions and the death of imagination? Itty, bitty, teensy visions that do not fit into a thimble, not a single original thought, not a daring dream, not one able to gather the soul of all Kenyan and announce: “People, I have dream…? I have seen who we are. I have seen that we rule the world with greatness and goodness. And if the Americans sent a man to the moon, in two years time we shall send a Kenyan woman to the depths beneath and beyond the Indian Ocean waves and we shall plant the Kenyan flag there. The text of this mad imagining is embedded in books, in the art of cave walls so many of which are here, it is the internet, it is in what is unspoken within each of our hearts. It is the narrative of the nations we admire, and they have written about themselves, so there are no secrets beyond what each of our imaginations can do with what we have read, what we read. We can read and transcend it. That is the gift of reading.
Why read? I have a dream, honorable guests. I have a dream because I have read about the dreams of others and seen what their dreams have brought to the table of life. I have a dream but, as you well know, there is no point in dreaming alone.
Do we have a crisis about our culture of reading? Yes. But this is a small part of a larger problem that of the crisis of the Kenyan aesthetic sensibility.
Another question: What is the nature and character of the intangible spirit of beauty, expression, imagination and design which has emerged out of our numerous interactions, and which needs to be recorded, explored and interrogated?
More questions: What anemic imagination sticks culture-dealing with all things artistic especially ngoma and the music festival– under sports and gender? What blind thinking creates a vision plan that makes no mention of creative and intellectual capital, or even, at the least, art and creative enterprises in a long-tern national economic vision?
So that next time I will not be somewhere wondering how a reading culture can be generated in a country so deeply blessed with the diversity of creative expression and human experience like ours, intangible resources most nations would go to war to have a bit of. So we cannot have to ask again—has anyone anywhere thought of an arts council?
Why read? So that the bright park who had composition lessons removed from the school curriculum will understand the generational impact his or her actions will have? So that a greater electorate can ask their campaigning candidates – What was the last book you read and what insights did you acquire from it?
Why read? So we can write. And later send ourselves to other people’s countries and write their stories for them as foreign correspondents. Why read? 13.7 trillion dollars – the value of the global book industry. Why read? So this will be the very last time someone in Kenya will ask, ‘Why Read?’